Thursday, September 2, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, Part 4

The interesting thing about the American Western is that the genre was developed at the same time the history of the real West was unfolding. I’m not sure if any event in history was mythologized quite that quickly.

While the West was being settled and the Indian Wars being fought, the dime novel publishers back east were churning out Western fiction by the trainload. Many of these stories featured fictional characters, but many grabbed real life people like Kit Carson, Jesse James and Buffalo Bill, making them into myths often while they were still alive. And their readers couldn’t get enough of it.

So by the time the West was no longer quite as Wild, the Western was an established genre in popular fiction. All the tropes that go with it—the fast draw; the school marm in danger; the laconic cowpoke—were a part of our cultural consciousness. When the marshal and the outlaw met in the street at high noon, we didn’t need an explanation of what would happen next. We just knew.

Westerns remained popular for much of the 20th Century and the genre contributed a lot to modern geekiness. It’s almost difficult to imagine nowadays just how popular characters like the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy were. Heck, Hopalong was the first character to appear on a lunchbox! How cool is that? During the 1930s & 1940s, Hopalong was the hero in 66 B-movies. In the 1950s, he added 52 half-hour TV episodes and a radio show to the mix. Roy Rogers’ fictional cowboy persona was equally popular.

And you know what was cool about the actors who played these characters? They recognized that many (if not most) of their fans were children. They were role models, by golly. And they embraced the responsibility inherent in this. Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger), William Boyd (Hopalong) and Roy Rogers all lived good lives outside their films and TV shows. They knew they had examples to set about honesty and hard work and decency, so they lived in ways to exemplify these virtues. They never let their fans down.

William Boyd is especially noteworthy here, because prior to being cast as Hopalong, he had cheated and drank his way through several marriages. But when he became a role model, he cleaned up his act. He quit drinking and his fifth marriage lasted the rest of his life.

Anyway, back to the Western. We’ve had a number of excellent novelists giving us strong stories through the years: Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, Alan Lemay and others. During the 1950s, when the popularity of superhero comics waned for awhile, Westerns were one of the mainstays of the comic industry. Radio gave us cool shows like The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke and The Cisco Kid. TV gave extended life to these shows and tossed in excellent fare like The Rifleman and Bat Masterson.

The Western has lost much of the hold it had on our culture, but it’s still out there. And its contribution to geekiness is undeniable.

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